Monday Series: An Inquest into a Surgical Procedure II

Charles Spradbrow also witnessed Joseph Hall in perfectly good health on Saturday June 22, having had seen him at Turnbull’s ten or twelve times on occasion to be treated for deafness, and was “always very anxious to use the instrument.” Several other individuals—as many as thirty, according to some reports—were also at Turnbull’s that Saturday, awaiting their turn to be treated for deafness. As Spradbrow testified, sometime around 10 o’clock, Hall filled up the air pump as full as possible, having become familiar with the set-up process from his previous visits. He also assisted Hall and Mr. Lyon, Turnbull’s surgical assistant, in setting up the instruments for catheterization, including connecting catheter to the pump. Spradbrow emphasized that both he and Hall were following the Lyon’s directions. Once the instruments were setup accordingly, Hall seated himself and Lyon inserted the catheter into Hall’s nostril and began to proceed with the process:

Continue reading Monday Series: An Inquest into a Surgical Procedure II

Monday Series: An Inquest into a Surgical Procedure I

Ah, yes, Dear Reader…I have a treat for you for this Monday’s Series! This is something I’ve been researching for the past three years and part of the paper I presented at the Meeting of the Three Societies last summer.

I wrote earlier about the inquest into Alexander Turnbull’s practice following the death of his patient, 68-year-old William Whitbread after a procedure involving Eustachian tube catheterization. While the Whitbread inquest ceased to attract significant public attention to draw attention to Turnbull’s status as a practitioner, or on safety of Eustachian tube catheterization, the death of eighteen-year hold Joseph Hall was another story. The case raised considerable more attention amongst the public and medical practitioners, than that of Whitbread’s; daily newspapers reported the case with immense details from the proceedings and depositions and the case’s medical attributes were even discussed in The Lancet. Hall’s death on Saturday June 22 was strikingly similar that that of Whitbread’s only a few days earlier: he had been plagued with a constant irritation in his ear and headed to Turnbull for continuous treatments, and died following the application of catheterization. What made this case different than the first to merit such public and professional interest?

Continue reading Monday Series: An Inquest into a Surgical Procedure I

The Death of William Whitbread

Despite the emerging popularity of Eustachian tube catheterization in France—particularly supported with Deleau’s air douche—British aurists remained ambivalent about applying the procedure for deaf patients. In addition to his herbal remedies, Alexander Turnbull performed surgical procedures on his patients, including syringing, removal of obstructions with forceps, and Eustachian tube catheterization. According to aurist William Wright, part of Turnbull’s shift from herbal remedies to surgical procedures was nothing more than self-advertisement: “Dr. Turnbull appears tacitly to have abandoned his remedies of such wondrous power, which produced the “extraordinary exhibition” mentioned in the newspapers, or to have added it to the old system newly revived and modified, of passing an instrument through the nostrils into the eustachian tube.”

The summer of 1839, however, was particularly transformative not only for Turnbull’s practice, but for aural surgery as a specialist profession. On Thursday June 20, sixty-eight year old William Whitbread visited Turnbull’s practice for an operation to treat “excessive deafness” which he had been “for some time labouring.” Continue reading The Death of William Whitbread

The Pretensions of Dr. Turnbull

I wrote about Dr. Alexander Turnbull (c. 1794-1881) in a previous post discussing his advertisements for deafness, particularly the use of veratria as a catch-all cure. Even though nearly all medical practitioners of the nineteenth century advertised in one form or another, Turnbull was especially prolific in advertising his cures and remedies, and often supplemented his advertisements with glowing testimonials from his patients. In fact, he even published a short book, Report of Facts Narrating Recoveries of the Deaf and Dumb in 1840, 1841, and 1848 (2nd edition, London: Printed by William Cathrall, 1840), which was printed for private distribution only, and contains pages and pages of testimonials and reviews of his cures as printed/advertised in a variety of periodicals!

Turnbull has also—perhaps notoriously—been the subject of a few highly publicized medical cases. Continue reading The Pretensions of Dr. Turnbull

Quack Curers for the Deaf

During the 1830s, Alexander Turnbull (c.1794-1881), advertised a remedy he conjured, which he professed was capable of curing any cases of deafness not arising from organic disease. In particular, he advocated the use of veratria, a poisonous alkaloid obtained from the hellebore root, as an ointment applied to the external ear; the same treatment, along with other alkaloids from the Ranunculaceæ were also amongst several of his treatment options for deafness, gout, dropsy, rheumatism, and affections of the heart.[1] Six pages of Turnbull’s 1837 A Treatise on Painful and Nervous Affections, and a New Mode of Treatment for Diseases of the Ear were devoted to the application of veratria to the external ear and parts joining the auricle. Terming his treatment as “electro-stimulation,” Turnbull claims

Feeling satisfied that I had in my possession means decidedly effective in promoting absorption through the medium of the nerves, and knowing that deafness often arose from the Eustachian tube being obstructed by enlarged tonsil glands, I applied veratria externally over these glands, and found it frequently succeed in removing their enlargement and restoring the hearing.[2]

Signing off with the initials “J.T.,” on 5 April 1839, Joseph Toynbee (1815-1866) wrote to the Lancet warning readers of “quack curers for the deaf” that were printed in London’s daily newspapers that week.[3] Toynbee’s issue with the advertisement was not whether Turnbull could differentiate between organic and non-organic causes of deafness—a claim that Toynbee doubted merited any truth—but rather, on Turnbull’s public declaration of his expertise through advertisement. “[H]e sends his advertisement to the public papers,” Toynbee wrote, “for an enormous payment gets it inserted as a paragraph…[and] by the aid of the circulation of this puff…deaf people consult Dr. Turnbull; he makes his application, and takes his fee.”[4] Toynbee insisted this was a disgraceful and underhanded maneuver directed towards drawing in patients, who were left vulnerable to potentially dangerous treatments: “Sir, almost every medical man must have heard of the most horrible effects sometimes produced by the application Dr. Turnbull uses…It must be apparent that Dr. Turnbull has no greater knowledge upon the diseases of the ear, than the ignorant whom I have before exposed by means of your pages.”[5]

Moreover, Toynbee argued if Turnbull was truly anxious with “relieving suffering humanity” as he professed in his advertisements, then why didn’t he “devote care, time, and trouble to the study of diseases of the ear? By this mean only can a man obtain information, and practising without that information must make a man appear, what he really is, a noxious hypocrite.”[6] By emphasizing a practitioner’s altruistic nature, advertisements proliferated by newspapers only disguised the skills of a practitioner, and in so doing, “tend to mislead and cheat the public;” thus,

as long as the public is as unwise as it now is, it is to be feared that there will be found Turnbulls, with applications; Cronins, Curtises, and hosts of others with ear drops; Blairs, with gout drops; Holloways, with double universal ointments; St. John Longs, with killing frictions; and all of them will gain their end by getting a living.[7]


[1] Alexander Turnbull, On the Medical Properties of the Natural Order Ranunculaceæ: and more particularly on the uses of sabadilla seeds, delphinium staphisagria, and aconitum napellus, and their alcaloids veratria, sabadilline, delphinia, and aconitine (London: Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, Greene, & Longman, 1835).

[2] Quoted in William Wilde, Practical Observations on Aural Surgery and the Nature and Treatment of Diseases of the Ear (London: John Churchill, 1853), 44.

[3] “Quack Curers for the Deaf,” The Lancet 32 (April 1839): 112-113.

[4] “Quack Curers for the Deaf,” The Lancet 32 (April 1839): 113.

[5] “Quack Curers for the Deaf,” The Lancet 32 (April 1839): 113.

[6] “Quack Curers for the Deaf,” The Lancet 32 (April 1839): 113.

[7] “Quack Curers for the Deaf,” The Lancet 32 (April 1839): 113.